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Badilisha Lugha KISWAHILI

Tragedy of our time: Completing primary education as an illiterate!

7th May 2012
Seven out of ten standard three pupils in Tanzania can not read a simple Standard Two level Swahili story. (File photo)

Back in my school days, it never would have occurred to me that any one could complete primary education as illiterate as they had enrolled in school.

This is because I had never heard or seen anyone who had gone past Standard One without mastering how to read and write.

Although today some children learn how to read and write as early as at nursery school level, in my days Standard One, was at least the level where we learned how to read and write.

I was shocked when I was in secondary school to find out that a cousin of mine who had already completed primary education years ahead of me could not read or write! I just could not understand how he got as far as Standard Seven in the first place.

Little did I know that my cousin was not alone. Newspapers now and then are awash with stories of students in secondary schools who can not read and write. This means many people have been completing their education without learning how to read and write. And nobody seems to care.

At least some people somewhere are now showing concern and taking action. Maswa District Council for example has introduced a programme to identify illiterate students enrolled in different schools in the district.

This paper reported on Saturday that Ngulinguli Secondary School administration in Maswa district recently discovered that one of the students selected to join the school this year could not read or write a single Swahili word.

One wonders how on earth children who have not mastered how to read and write can be allowed to move to upper classes. How do teachers allow them to sit for final examinations? And for those in secondary schools, why are they allowed to progress with secondary education when they can’t read or write? Maswa District Council should be applauded for setting an example by pruning out students who do not qualify to be at such levels of education. Other district councils need to emulate the example.

Parents too are to blame. How can one let their child move to an upper class, graduate, and worst of all be selected to join a public secondary school while they can not even write their name? This shows how we parents don’t follow up on our children’s progress in school. For if we did, we would easily find out if our children did not know how to read and write. We are supposed to be the first to know that our children can not read or write. This would help us intervene before it’s too late.

Last year, when an education NGO, Uwezo Tanzania, launched its Annual Learning Assessment Report, the results were shocking.

The findings showed that seven out of ten standard three pupils could not read a simple Standard Two level Swahili story. Similarly, seven out of ten pupils could not do simple Standard Two mathematics. Things were worse in English language where nine out of ten Standard Three pupils could not read a simple Standard Two level English story.

Even Standard Seven pupils as well as secondary school students faced the same problem. Only one in ten could read or comprehend a simple Standard Two English story.

The Uwezo report aside. Now and then we read newspaper stories of children not only in secondary school but public secondary schools who can not read or write. The last story I read was published on Saturday.

Being selected to join a public school after primary school completion means one passed their national Standard Seven exams. So how then do pupils pass national exams when they can’t read or write?

A colleague blamed this on corruption -- that teachers and invigilators take bribes and write exams for such pupils/students. Doesn’t sound logical, does it? But anything is possible in Bongo land where money matters. This reminds me of a doctor at a public hospital who recently demanded a 25,000/- bribe from a friend of mine to operate on his swollen leg.

Surprisingly, the doctor did not bother to first find out what was wrong with the patient’s leg, for he did not perform any tests (X-ray etc) before the operation. What mattered to this doctor it seems was money and nothing else.

A headline in a recent article in this paper reads: “DEO: 860 illiterate children join secondary schools.” These pupils passed their national Standard Seven exams last year in Bunda district and were selected to join public secondary schools in the district. The 860 students can neither read nor write. The question here again is how then did they pass their national exams if they can not write or read?

Could the exams have leaked and they simply were able to cram the multiple choice questions’ answers? Even if they did, how can someone who can not read or write use a leaked paper in the first place? If someone did the exams for these pupils, then that person is lacking upstairs. For how can you ‘help’ a person who can not read or write? The doctor’s example above speaks volumes!

And how about those who marked the exams? Didn’t they take note?

Okay. Some of our children complete education sans education. Who should we point an accusing finger at then? The teachers? Yes. The 860 pupils’ teachers for example take the biggest share of the blame. Only the teachers know how these children went up to Standard Seven as illiterate as they were.

The Bunda District Education Officer (DEO), Rabani Bituro, mentions a shortage of teachers as one of the reasons. This is very true! We have heard of schools with only one teacher who serves both as the head teacher and the teacher for the whole school at the same time.

In such cases, where a school is run by only one teacher or three teachers, it is very likely to have pupils who complete their education sans education. And the single teacher in the school can not be blamed. In schools with at least many teachers (very few schools have enough teachers), it is possible to have children who complete school as illiterate as they came in given the number of pupils a single teacher has to handle in a class.

In many schools, overcrowded classrooms are a common sight. Instead of having the standard number of 45 pupils in a class, some classes accommodate more than a hundred pupils. This makes it difficult for a teacher to deal with individual pupils.

In such circumstances, the normally unmotivated teachers concentrate only on the smart pupils. The same can be expected when it comes to marking exercise books. I visited a primary school in Temeke recently and found a teacher with a heap of exercise books to mark. She admitted it was a hard task and my worry was whether she marked all of them, about 120, as required. We all know what happens when we have too much work to do and we are already tired! We can’t blame teachers here.

If parents were keen, they would notice unmarked exercise books or those marked wrongly. And they would make follow-up, and who knows, a solution would be sought in the long run. This is where parents take their own share of the blame. Very few follow-up on their children’s education.

During the Uwezo assessment, it was discovered that most parents never bother to look at their children’s exercise books, let alone help them with homework.

Some parents are said to have been shocked themselves to find out during the Uwezo assessment that their children could not read or write.

As a parent, I know how busy we can be trying to make ends meet. But education experts say this should not be an excuse. We need to include our children in our busy schedules. We need to set aside time to monitor their progress in school. Look at their exercise books everyday, take time to help them where necessary, make sure they do their homework and encourage them to revise.

As parents, we are also advised to visit our children’s schools to find out their progress. You will agree with me that very few parents do this, if any at all.

The government too has a role to play in this serious issue of having children who go to school but leave without learning anything after having spent seven years in school. I hope the ministry of education is taking the necessary measures to tackle this problem.

Like the Uwezo report concludes, we all have a role to play to revise the trend! It’s never too late.

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